“But I couldn’t see what good it would do me to fire a gun. As if I could shoot my way out of my perplexities – the chief perplexity being my character!” (Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow)
“Put away that paper,’ I said. ‘For God’s sake, don’t quote my big ideas at me. If there’s one thing I can’t take today, it’s that.” (Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow)
Humboldt’s Gift is composed almost entirely of the contradiction between lofty thoughts and crass actions, with virtually nothing commonplace filling the space between. Charlie Citrine, an aging lecher/philosopher/mystic, flips between contemplating the soul one moment to running around with Chicago’s lower class of criminals the next. Though the placement of literature right next to sex and crime does give the book a slightly ridiculous edge, its also what makes the book so incredibly readable and its main character so endearing.
For all its fast-paced action and ridiculousness, Humboldt’s Gift is a book that needs to be thought through. More than half the time, the reader follows Charlie’s thoughts as he philosophizes about America, consumerism, death, poetry and the poet, and remembers bits of his past with vivid precision. His wide-ranging knowledge and literary references all need to be fact-checked and considered, but the most thought-provoking chapters come in at the end of the book. Bellow hints that Humboldt’s final money scheme, sent from the grave, will allow Charlie to live out the rest of his life in the higher realms of thought – but it’s hard not to think that such a swift and easy influx of money is a trite solution to Citrine’s spiritual struggles. Unless Bellow is suggesting that money is a prerequisite to poetry, I am at a loss about how to puzzle out the last few scenes.
Buy – Borrow– TBR – Avoid
Ending: Like I said, puzzling
Further Reading: Of course, Charlie Citrine reminds me immensely of Frank Bascombe – since their situations are almost identical and they’re equally charming. But the writing style – switching between ‘high’ and ‘low’ thought – almost reminds me of Moby-Dick. Though Melville doesn’t descend to the same crass descriptions as Bellow, they both switch between spiritual thoughts and describing every-day occurrences with a similar sense of rapidity and urgency.